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There’s something about hearing the sounds of a language.

I am a devoted lover of the written word, and I believe in writing’s place in the study of linguistics even though that’s not an easy position to defend.  As I wrote in my last post, I believe every child should have printed books in their very own languages, and I think that authentic texts are easily one of the most powerful tools for second language acquisition.

But!  There is something special about the human voice, isn’t there?

One of my very favorite things I get to do on this blog is my Featured Speaker project.  Whenever I get the recordings from native speakers I get a little thrill, and I set aside time to put on my best headphones, close my eyes, and listen.  I usually get goosebumps.  It’s not just the language, though obviously languages are my very favorite things.  I can read about different languages, and read texts in different languages (or at least look at them), and I have to admit I do get a thrill from seeing different writing systems.  But there’s something about having a human voice coming through the wire.  Two of my Featured Speakers are actually classmates from my Master’s program, which is conducted entirely online; for months I’ve read their words, had “conversations” with them, got to know them.  But when I heard them speaking their words, that’s when I really felt like we got to be friends.

Linguists who document languages in the field make audio recordings as well as written notes, but these recordings are usually pretty technical, inaccessible to the average listener both in terms of technology and in terms of content.  In recent years, however, some innovative linguists have developed a tool called the “talking dictionary,” which is…exactly what it sounds like!  The Living Tongues Institute in particular, with the support of the National Geographic Society, has hosted workshops around the world where speakers of endangered languages learn the techniques to not only record their languages, but to format them in ways that are accessible to anyone interested in hearing the words.  It makes the difference between reading that gay-yuu mvtlh-wvsh means “baby basket laces” in the Siletz language, and actually clicking on this link and hearing someone say the words to you.

Living Tongues hosts robust talking dictionaries of several different languages, and just this week they unveiled an entirely new database of languages from Latin America.  It is an amazing resource and learning tool, and it represents a vibrant and ongoing collaboration between professional linguists, language activists, and native speakers.  I think it’s really exciting!

They are planning to continue their work by holding their next workshop in Papua New Guinea, the country with the single highest number of languages found anywhere in the world.  There are an estimated 836 different languages spoken in Papua New Guinea; if you’re keeping track, that’s something like 12% of all of the languages in the world.  The organizers of this particular workshop are expecting participants representing 50 different local languages.

This work requires some gutgut matan (listen here!).  If you are as excited about supporting this kind of work as I am, please head over to the Indiegogo fundraising page and consider chipping in.  A little goes a long way to helping build an online world where human voices can reach us through our headphones.